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Border Bound
April 23, 2006
Cari Hammerstrom
Monitor Staff Writer

It is Jan. 26, and Silva and the Marshals are aboard a Mexican repatriation flight, along with 29 other illegal immigrants who had been previously held at a Florida detention center.

Two to four times a week, solid-white Boeing 727s with no identifying insignia holding anywhere from 30 to up to 120 undocumented Mexican immigrants touch down at Valley International Airport. Their pilots carry out part of one of the most vital, yet misunderstood and invisible, components of this nation’s divisive struggle against illegal immigration — a process known as “removal.”

It is a complex system of diplomatic accords involving would-be immigrants with their own stories to tell and tweaks in U.S. immigration policy.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, deported more than 162,000 illegal immigrants of all nationalities during fiscal year 2005, including 83,000 criminals. ICE’s San Antonio office handled about 10.5 percent of that load.

ICE’s other duties include detaining illegal immigrants, enforcing employment law and investigating customs and immigration violations.

Shortly before the 6:45 p.m. flight, ICE agents disarm themselves near the tarmac as they anticipate Silva’s repatriation flight from Bradenton, Fla. The only firearms allowed anywhere near the plane belong to four U.S. Marshals, stationed at the jet’s wing tips and exit doors.

As the engine’s roar subsides, a metal ladder rolls out.

Silva steps off the plane into the crisp January air, and he is immediately ushered to one of two idling buses. ICE agents had expected many more than 30 people, but one of the flight’s boarding points was canceled, possibly due to inclement weather.

“Victor Silva,” says ICE agent Jaime Garza. “Armando,” the man says, giving his middle name.
“I say the first and last name. They give me the third,” Garza says, checking names off his official records. He signs off on a document. The passengers are now in official ICE custody.

To the back of the bus they go. The immigrants, most of whom are male, pass through two doors, as the bus is divided into chambers separated by cage-like gates. The men sit together. The two women are isolated in a different compartment. One juvenile will ride in a separate van.

This government ride is bound for the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge.

Preparing for Departure
About 20 Mexicans stare at the bus’s diamond-plate sheet metal floor as it hums down Expressway 83 toward McAllen. One man holds his head in his worn hands. There is very little talk between the deportees.

In less than an hour, they will be back in Mexico.

Rogelio Gutierrez, a slender ICE detention operations supervisor dressed in black and wearing the agency’s standard-issue cowboy hat, surveys the scene. He confidently opens the door separating the immigrants from the agents and strides inside.

Gutierrez is not scared of the detainees. In fact, he seems to strike a chord with them as he speaks to them in a friendly tone using colloquial Spanish.

“Go home to your families,” he tells them in Spanish. “Go the bar and get a drink or the church to pray to God.”

He tries to explain what is happening to alleviate some of their fears. After all, just minutes before boarding the bus, the undocumented immigrants were on a plane and have no idea where they are and, in some instances, where they are going.

For Silva, it is a long way back to his hometown of Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso — that is, if he chooses to go back.

It’s not uncommon for the Border Patrol to catch someone trying to re-enter the United States hours after they were deported.

“I’m not sure. I don’t know,” Silva says in Spanish when asked if he will try to illegally enter the United States again. “I have to talk to my wife and kids. If I see that they are in need …”

Gutierrez announces that the men will be dropped off in Reynosa, a border city of half a million in the state of Tamaulipas. Mexican immigration officials will meet them at the bridge, as may other civil service representatives such as church folk. They may elect to stay at the Albergue Gaudalupano, which is a government halfway house, for three days. Here, they can take showers, sleep in beds and eat hot food.

ICE has a binational agreement with Mexico to deport Mexican border-crossers to Reynosa one month and to Matamoros the next. The cities rotate because crime rates tend to increase when ICE deports hundreds of men and women each week with very little money and no place to stay to Mexico, Gutierrez said.

“We (South Texas) get the brunt of them,” he said. Far fewer Mexican deportees go through Laredo, El Paso and the rest of the southwestern border.

Names, vital statistics and crimes — if there are any — are reported to the respective Mexican Consulates. This way, the Mexican government knows exactly who is coming back home.

“My friends are going to help me out,” Silva says, explaining his plan of action once he gets to Reynosa. “A friend I met at the detention center.”

Detain and desist

Not every illegal immigrant the Border Patrol or ICE catches winds up at a detention center like Silva did.

Immigration law is complex. There are several ways to detain and deport.

Procedures vary when it comes to the alien’s country of origin, time in the United States, whether the individual is traveling with children and if the alien has a criminal history.

Sometimes when Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border catch a non-criminal Mexican who has illegally entered the country, that person is voluntarily returned to Mexico.

A “voluntary return” is an administrative procedure that does not result in a ban on legal re-entry.

Simply put, Border Patrol agents just drive to the border and drop off the person.

The Border Patrol might finally begin deportation proceedings on a non-criminal alien from Mexico only after the person is caught multiple times, said Nina Pruneda, ICE spokeswoman for the San Antonio division.

Silva’s history of immigration violations is unknown, but according to ICE documents, he is being deported this time around, not voluntarily returned.

The Mexican tile-layer was apprehended in Florida as he waited at a Tampa bus stop. He was heading to Naples, an agricultural area with a purportedly good job market, and his bus was supposed to leave at 7 a.m.

But at 6:15 a.m., a Border Patrol agent snagged Silva because he had no immigration papers.

Silva was taken to an immigration detention center in Bradenton, Florida, which is actually operated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. ICE has agreements with state and local jails and federal prisons across the country for bed space, in addition to its eight secure detention facilities and seven contract facilities.

ICE’s Office of Detention and Removal has 20,800 beds total, 3,200 of which are in the 54 Texas counties that make up the San Antonio district serving central and south Texas.

Silva speaks no ill of the Florida detention center at which he briefly stayed.

“It’s like being in an apartment,” he said.

Detention times fluctuate on a case-by-case basis. It is based upon on how long it takes for the receiving country to issue a temporary travel document and to verify the immigrant alien’s citizenship.

“We cannot just go dump people in anybody’s country,” Gutierrez said.

For example, sometimes Central Americans claim they are Mexicans so they can get a “voluntary return,” he said.

The average stay in a detention center was 90 days last summer, said Dean Boyd, an ICE spokesman in Washington D.C. Currently, the average detention time has improved to 19 days.

Silva’s stay was no more than a few days.

Expedited removal

The lag between apprehension and removal has declined because of the sophistication of a program called “Expedited Removal.”

Until last summer, Expedited Removal — an administrative procedure aimed at reducing the number of “Other than Mexican” illegal aliens by not requiring that they appear before a federal immigration judge — only existed at official ports of entry.

But then there was such a huge influx of Brazilian nationals that it got to the point where the Brazilians would actually surrender themselves to the Border Patrol agents after they crossed through the brush because word got back that U.S. detention beds were full and they would merely be let go. The media dubbed the process “catch and release.”

“We had no space,” Boyd said. “… Frankly, it encouraged more people to come up.”

Immigration court proceedings — along with appeal after appeal — tied up detention space. So DHS took the already existing statute — Expedited Removal — and, in Sept. 2005, extended it to the entire Southwestern border.

Whereas before one person would take up a bed for three months, six people can now be assigned to the same bed during that time frame. More illegal aliens from countries other than Mexico are deported.

Not only has Expedited Removal resulted in more deportations, but word is getting back to the countries that “catch and release” is over, said Marc Moore, ICE San Antonio field office director.

The apprehension levels for certain Central and South American countries have dropped, he said.

Leaving on a jet plane (and bus)

Mexicans, however, continue to account for the bulk of Border Patrol apprehensions, the majority of the court proceedings in immigration court and the highest number of ICE’s removals.

In fiscal year 2005, Mexicans made up 27.4 percent of the court proceedings the 53 U.S. immigration courts completed. During the previous fiscal year, Mexicans made up 30.2 percent of court proceedings.

In the Rio Grande Valley Sector for the Border Patrol, 47 percent of the people apprehended so far in fiscal year 2006 have been Mexican.

And Mexicans have steadily accounted for about 70 percent of ICE’s nationwide removals for the past three years.

Mexican repatriation flights to the border are nothing new — ICE, or what used to be U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, started contracting with the U.S. Marshals in the early 90s — however, the number of flights has increased and the process has become “streamlined and more fluid,” Pruneda said.

Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS) flights are also used internationally to take “Other than Mexicans” home.

“Our goal is not to keep people in detention,” Boyd said. “It is to remove them quickly from the country.”

As for how much it costs to deport these individuals via plane, Boyd said “it’s far cheaper than having them sit in a jail cell for long periods of time.”

The end of the road … or is it?

From apprehension, to court, to detention, to plane, to bus, to the border, Silva’s journey through the country’s immigration web is a microcosm of what thousands go through every year and an example of the interagency cooperation it takes to keep immigration gears turning.

As Silva waits under the orange glow of the sodium vapor lights at the entrance of the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, ICE detention and removal officers unpack several boxes bearing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security seal and coded with a 7-digit number.

“Una fila, una fila,” an officer says, which in English translates to “One line, one line.”

They hand each immigrant his or her box. Like Christmas, they unwrap photos, jackets, belts and baseball caps. For some it may have been months since they were first detained and surrendered their belongings, and for others, just days.

The director of the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Migración shakes hands with the officers. Lastly, an ICE officer takes her place on the halfway point of the bridge over the Rio Grande.

Another ICE officer waves them on.

Thirty Mexicans go back to Mexico. They have been removed … at least for now.

Cari Hammerstrom covers law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4424. For this and more local stories, visit